Union Hack

Before making this piece I had been thinking about creating an artwork based on the union jack flag for some time. Although I am almost completely without patriotic sentiment – and find problematic associations of the British flag with the far right, colonialism, monarchism etc – I have to admit to actually liking it’s visual qualities. As a designer, I find all world flags fascinating – as symbols packed with meaning that operate as national brands. However, the union jack, as a superimposition of three distinct flags, has a striking dynamism in it’s composition that’s quite unique (eg. compared to the tricolours of France, Germany, Italy, Ireland etc).


I have used the flag previously as a device in various design jobs, such as for citizenship education, the Hansard Society, as well as this book cover for Pluto Press:

Asians in Britain book cover

I tried experimenting with the flag’s colours and forms creating variations such as this:

Multicoloured Union Jack

It was then I remembered another material that I had been intending to use. I had acquired some police barrier tape a while ago, and considered combining it with stencil paintings etc – but when it occurred to me to put it together with the flag, I thought it could enrich the meaning of the piece.

I also thought that it could address some topical issues, particularly the many incidences of undercover policing that had been exposed recently and the threat this poses to civil liberties in the UK. We had also recently experienced seemingly unprecedented levels of flag-waving during the jubilee and olympics, and the union jack was increasingly creeping onto various consumer goods, like cushion covers etc. From once being almost perceived as a fascist symbol, the flag was gaining widespread cultural acceptance.

 Damien Hirst’s enormous spin painting rendering of the Union Jack covered the floor of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony

Damien Hirst’s enormous spin painting rendering of the Union Jack covered the floor of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony

Additionally, the upcoming Scottish independence referendum raised awkward questions about the continuing relevance of the flag’s design and even the ongoing controversy over Britain’s foreign policy (and events such as the Woolwich killing) made the union jack a worthwhile subject to respond to.

There’s also something crudely satisfying about subverting what some consider a precious national symbol. This also reflected research I had been doing into the psychogeographical concept of détournement (‘rerouting’) - the appropriation and subversion of the signs, images and media of the dominant culture. 

Having said all that, I felt the final design maintained enough ambiguity to still allow personal interpretation by the viewer. I created several different mock-ups before settling on a final version using metallic silver tape for the background (and in this way at least, digital media was an essential part of the process.)


I knew that I wanted to accurately conform to the official version of the flag, as it is “quite intricate, and often drawn incorrectly” as Julian Wiseman says in this excellent article. This meant that the width of the police tape would determine the overall scale of the finished piece, ie. it should be as close as possible to 708.49 x 353.26 mm in total. 


I initially planned to order a custom-made canvas, but the cost and lack of accuracy was off-putting. So I basically constructed a box out of timber and MDF in the college’s 3D Resource Centre. (After making the box I was surprised by the actual proportions of it.) I decided to make it quite deep, about 75mm, not only to match my previous Attention Seeker canvas – but also to give it depth, presenting it as a three dimensional object and emphasising the act of wrapping and enclosing the tape around something. The pictures below show the various stages of production, and I completed the piece in time to display at the MA interim group show.

I titled the piece ‘Union Hack’. On one level this is quite a basic play on words, but one which was so obvious I thought I should just go with it. (Some definitions for ‘hack’ include: “a clever or elegant technical accomplishment, especially one with a playful or prankish bent”; “modify or change something in an extraordinary way” and “to modify, repurpose and customise”.)

In reflection, I feel that overall the piece was successful in achieving what I set out to, and I wouldn’t change much in the production of it. My concern is that it may be read in a superficial way as a shallow gag, or a naive juvenile protest. In practice however, I have generally had a good reaction to it and when presented at a group session it provoked an interesting and wide-ranging discussion about national symbols and identity etc.